If Donald Trump were a better politician, all of this could have been avoided. 

I’m not speaking of his administration’s breathtaking incompetence or the president’s absurd inability to grasp even the basic points of actual governance, so amply demonstrated over the last two years. 

Rather, I speak of the thing he so loves to brag about: his own supposed political genius. In Trump’s narrative, he won an election that no one else could have, a victory so incredible that its only explanation is his superior instincts and intellect. 

It’s true that his victory over Hillary Clinton was an upset, given the polling and the state of the economy and (much of) the media’s certainty that he would lose. But, in hindsight, it’s also true that he got extraordinarily lucky: He narrowly won three key Midwestern states while losing the popular vote by three million; he faced an almost equally disliked opponent dogged by the FBI and the media over email server management; and he was aided by a Russian regime allegedly being assisted by officials from his own campaign. 

Yet instead of recognizing that he hit an inside straight, Trump believed his own hype—that he was smarter than everyone else, that he had tapped into a reservoir of real-American antipathy toward the elites, that people really wanted his brand of simple-minded faux-populism: building the wall and banning immigrants and burning coal and isolating ourselves in the name of nationalism. 

But in office, he’s proven spectacularly bad at rallying the public to his banner and moving his agenda forward. Even with Republicans in control of Congress for two years, he enacted just one major law—a tax cut for the rich that did little more than explode the deficit and offer short-term stimulus to an already-growing economy.

He didn’t replace Obamacare. He didn’t build the wall. Sure, he rolled back some of President Obama’s environmental and civil and labor rights initiatives through executive action, and he pushed through lots of judges, including two Supreme Court justices, largely thanks to Mitch McConnell’s undying cynicism. But he failed to notch significant legislative victories or persuade the country that he was doing a good job, even with a good economy. 

And come November, he got his ass kicked. The wall he’d made a centerpiece of his campaign—that unprecedentedly brilliant campaign, in his telling—was slipping away, and his base was restive. 

So he dug in and made a stand, despite an obviously weak hand. No wall, no government funding, he said. 

And he got his ass kicked again. 

The thirty-five-day shutdown was an unqualified disaster. Eight hundred thousand federal workers suffered for no reason, the public blamed him, and Democrats held firm. The more Trump made his case to the American people, the more his approval ratings fell. 

On Thursday, a bill to fund the wall failed in the GOP-led Senate. On Friday morning, so many unpaid air-traffic controllers called in sick that airports saw massive delays. On Friday afternoon, McConnell informed Trump that his caucus was cracking. And finally, on Friday night, Trump caved, signing a bill to reopen the government for three weeks. He got nothing in return.

Actually, he got one fig leaf—a committee to negotiate a deal on border security ahead of the next budget deadline on February 15. On Saturday, fearing a backlash from his base—Ann Coulter had called him a wimp—Trump returned to defiance, declaring that he’d get his wall in three weeks, come hell or high water. 

Except he won’t, and he might be the only one who doesn’t realize it. 

Nancy Pelosi always knew she wasn’t playing against the varsity; now Trump’s weakness has been put on full display. Democrats have no reason to give in to his demands. Republicans have no way to force them to do so. If the government shuts down again, they know Trump will get blamed. And if he funds the government without a wall, Trump knows his supporters will smell weakness.

Either way, he loses. 

Trump can beat his chest about another shutdown, but in truth, he doesn’t have many options. Maybe Senate Republicans can convince Democrats to fund additional border fencing and Border Patrol agents, and Trump can claim victory. Or Trump could make good on his threat to declare a national emergency and circumvent Congress to build the wall—which might be a hard sell to a judge, considering that he’s dithered over declaring an emergency for two months, which undercuts the idea that there’s an emergency worth declaring. 

In the meantime, Trump gave Pelosi a perfect excuse to delay something he really could have used this week. With its pomp and circumstance, the State of the Union address, originally scheduled for Tuesday, offered Trump a national television audience and a temporary respite from his myriad troubles (hello, Roger Stone!), as well as a chance to—if he played it right—reassert himself and reset his presidency after his midterm spanking. 

He’ll still give that speech, but on Nancy Pelosi’s terms, and on her schedule. Next Tuesday, she’ll let him into her house. 

That power dynamic—and Trump’s pathological inability to deal with it—will be the story of the next two years. Pelosi is good at this game, and she’s got his number. Trump is bad at it, but his ego won’t let him see it.  

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman by email at jbillman@indyweek.com, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @jeffreybillman.

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